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Florida State League Top 20 Prospects

By Josh Boyd

Top 20
Two of the top three candidates for Minor League Player of the Year began the season in the high Class A Florida State League. The circuit renowned for its pitching is fittingly topped by the best pitching prospect in baseball, Brevard County righthander Josh Beckett.

He opened the season with 35 consecutive innings without an earned run. Though Beckett hadn't pitched in the FSL since June, his dominant run was still fresh in his opponents' minds. He continued to excel in Double-A and the majors, which won him the Player of the Year award.

Behind Beckett, four of the next five best prospects were promising young position players, led by Charlotte third baseman Hank Blalock. He was nearly Beckett's equal at the plate, hitting .380 in the first half.

Tampa outfielder Mitch Jones led the league with 21 home runs and reminded some of Shane Spencer with his muscular build and power potential, but he couldn’t crack the Top 20. Neither could hard-throwing relievers Anthony Ferrari, Adam Roller and Greg Runser, a testament to the quality of pitching throughout the league.

Beckett
Josh Beckett
Photo: Bob Libby
1 JOSH BECKETT, rhp
Brevard County Manatees (Marlins)

Beckett was restricted by shoulder ailments in his 2000 debut, but nothing stood in the 21-year-old righthander's way this year. He rapidly evolved into more than just a flamethrower by exhibiting pinpoint command of an overpowering three-pitch arsenal. Hitters couldn't sit on his explosive mid-90s fastball with his hammer curveball and much-improved changeup in the back of their minds.

"He was head and shoulders above everybody," Daytona manager Dave Trembley said. "He was every bit as good as Kerry Wood when he was here. He could dominate any day."

And not even Wood was named Minor League Player of the Year. Beckett limited FSL hitters to a .145 average while surrendering earned runs in only three of his 12 starts.

"He's definitely a future No. 1 starter," Charlotte manager Darryl Kennedy said. "He's a complete pitcher."

2 HANK BLALOCK, 3b
Charlotte Rangers

Coming into the season, Blalock was respected as a pure hitting prospect, albeit one who may have been a little short on power. Now after a breakthrough season of epic proportions, it's almost impossible to find any holes in his offensive game.

"Everything we threw up there, he hit," Lakeland manager Kevin Bradshaw said. "Wow, he’s got the whole package."

Blalock answered the concerns about his power by clubbing 37 doubles and 18 home runs between Charlotte and Double-A Tulsa. An intelligent, disciplined hitter, he’s developing loft power in his picturesque, balanced stroke.

Blalock also responded to concerns about his defense and was named the FSL’s best defensive third baseman by managers. His future at the position has been clouded by the arrival of 2001 first-rounder Mark Teixeira, but Blalock possesses an above-average arm and enough agility to handle a move to the outfield.

3 BRANDON PHILLIPS, ss
Jupiter Hammerheads (Expos)
The Expos expected big things from Phillips, whose 2000 campaign indicated a breakthrough season was on the horizon, but even they were surprised with how quickly it happened.

After hitting .242-11-72 at low Class A Cape Fear in 2000, he made his most impressive strides with his strike-zone judgment. He needed just 55 games in Jupiter to equal his walk total for all of the previous season. He’s also developing more power and stole 30 bases between the FSL and Double-A.

"He's rough around the edges," Trembley said. "But the ball makes a different sound off of his bat."

Defensively, Phillips owns a cannon arm and displays excellent first-step quickness. He made 18 errors in 55 FSL games, but was much steadier after his promotion.

"He's driven to be the best," Jupiter manager Tim Leiper said. "When he sees other players playing well, he wants to do better. He can beat you with his glove, bat or on the bases."

4 NIC JACKSON, of
Daytona Cubs
Jackson would have been more than a third-round pick in the 2000 draft if a finger injury hadn’t interrupted his junior season. He emerged in Daytona as a polished prospect and earned distinction as the FSL's most exciting player.

Trembley credits Daytona hitting coach Richie Zisk for helping Jackson adjust his swing to create backspin on the ball. Jackson’s power output rose from six homers in 74 games in 2000 to 19 in 131 contests this year despite bypassing low Class A and playing in the FSL's spacious ballparks.

"Nic wants to get better and he's receptive to instruction," Trembley said. "You don't have to remind him to play the game."

Jackson's slightly below-average arm is the only tool standing between him and a five-tool profile. He has a chiseled physique with less than 2 percent body fat.

"The thing I like about him is he's a slender, tall kid who will put on weight," Bradshaw said. "I think he's definitely a major leaguer."

5 RICARDO RODRIGUEZ, rhp
Vero Beach Dodgers

Rodriguez overmatched the Pioneer League last season and was rated the league’s No. 3 prospect. Though it was his first pro experience in the United States, some thought his age gave him an advantage.

After jumping two levels to the FSL, Rodriguez responded with another strong performance and led the league in strikeouts. He also was named the league’s most valuable pitcher.

He throws a two-seam fastball in the 91-93 mph range but isn’t considered overpowering. Managers were impressed with his ability to change speeds and utilize his curve and changeup at any point in the count. They also liked his competitive nature.

Rodriguez still needs to become more consistent with his mechanics, but he’s on the fast track.

6 JUSTIN MORNEAU, 1b
Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)

Morneau put his catcher's gear aside and tore up the low Class A Midwest League in the first half. He left a 1.017 on-base plus slugging percentage behind when he was promoted to Fort Myers shortly after his 20th birthday. He didn’t punish pitchers as much in the FSL, yet he still managed to impress skippers with his approach.

"He’s a pure hitter who will hit for average and power," Kennedy said. "If you make a mistake, he’ll make you pay."

Morneau’s 6-foot-4 frame contains prodigious power. Bothered by knee and elbow injuries as a catcher, he made improvement at first base in his first season out from behind the plate. His biggest weakness is his lack of speed.

"He reminds me of John Olerud," Tampa manager Brian Butterfield said. "He has big-time hitting ability."

7 BRANDON CLAUSSEN, lhp
Tampa Yankees
The Yankees have used the draft-and-follow rule to their advantage as well as any organization. Area scout Mark Batchko has nabbed three lefthanders out of Texas junior colleges: Andy Pettitte in 1991, Claussen in 1999 and $1.7 million man Sean Henn in 2001.

Claussen, who made his final nine starts of 2000 season in Tampa, was dominant the second time through, registering double-digits in strikeouts in three of his eight starts. The lefthander improved the velocity and command of his fastball, which features plus-plus life and tops out at 93-94.

He also bettered his big, tight curveball and changeup. Those pitches were instrumental in him leading the minors in strikeouts with 220 in 187 innings.

"He gets all three of his pitches over the plate," Bradshaw said. "He pitches inside and works with a great tempo."

8 BILLY TRABER, lhp
St. Lucie Mets
After agreeing to a $1.7 million signing bonus as the 16th overall pick in 2000, Traber settled for $400,000 when a routine physical revealed ligament damage in his pitching elbow. Since making his pro debut in April, he has pitched like a man on a mission. He maintained his health, shouldering 151 innings and earning two promotions to finish 2001 in Triple-A Norfolk.

Traber operates with four pitches and paints both sides of the plate with impeccable command of a moving 89-91 mph fastball. He'll mix in a good splitter a few times a game to keep hitters off balance.

"He has the full makeup of a solid major league lefthander," St. Lucie manager Tony Tijerina said. "He's very intelligent and confident. He's a rare type. Once he grasps command of the changeup, it will be a vital pitch."

9 RYAN DITTFURTH, rhp
Charlotte Rangers
Dittfurth always has been armed with a lively arsenal, but command had escaped him. He turned things around at Charlotte this season as he finally started to harness his boring 92-94 mph fastball, sharp curveball and changeup.

"His curveball is pretty good to lefthanders," Dunedin manager Marty Pevey said. "And he has command of his changeup. That's saying a lot."

Charlotte pitching coach Fred Dabney said Dittfurth has become more consistent with his mechanics and more confident of his ability to go after hitters. He’s still wild at times, as evidenced by his 15 wild pitches and 17 hit batsmen.

10 MIGUEL ASCENCIO, rhp
Clearwater Phillies

Ascencio's rise from obscurity was a pleasant, unexpected surprise to the Phillies. The Dominican righthander, who had a pedestrian 5-9, 4.83 career mark coming into 2001, topped the league in ERA and finished among leaders in wins, strikeouts and innings. The key to Ascencio's turnaround was learning to consistently repeat his arm slot, which bred more velocity and confidence.

Ascencio’s fastball has plus velocity (92-94 mph) and life. He also demonstrated an advanced feel for mixing speeds and locations.

"He reminds me of Ricardo Rodriguez, but he has a better arm," Butterfield said. "He changes speeds and has a good arm and a lively, above-average fastball."

11 ANDERSON MACHADO, ss
Clearwater Phillies

The FSL showcased a plethora of slick-fielding shortstops in 2001, including Phillips, St. Lucie's Chris Basak, Sarasota's Freddy Sanchez, Brevard County's Luis Ugueto, Jupiter's Wilson Valdez and Charlotte's Brandon Warriax. None of them received more acclaim for their deft glovework than Machado.

Despite making his second trip to Clearwater, Machado was still among the FSL's youngest regulars, and he again earned the title of best defensive shortstop. In addition to his strong arm, he showed soft hands and outstanding range.

"Defensively, he could go right now in the big leagues," Pevey said. "He wore this league out."

While managers talk glove first when it comes to Machado, he showed marked improvement at the plate after hitting .245-1-35 in 2000. However, he did struggle again after a July promotion to Double-A, and one FSL manager questioned Machado's future power potential and his offense in general.

12 SEUNG SONG, rhp
Sarasota Red Sox

Song was leading the South Atlantic League with a 2.04 ERA when he was promoted to Sarasota. He continued to baffle hitters with his diverse repertoire and pinpoint command, lowering his combined ERA for the year to 1.90.

Song isn't overpowering, though his fastball creeps into the 92-93 mph range and he shows outstanding rotation on his curveball. He’s aggressive with his fastball and goes right after hitters.

"When you talk to hitters, they’ll tell you he’s sneaky," Bradshaw said. "They can’t catch up to it well, it gets on them real quick."

Song is a drop-and-drive pitcher with fundamentally sound mechanics. He limited FSL hitters to a .164 average and didn't allow more than two runs in any of his eight starts.

"He has great command and a flawless delivery," Vero Beach pitching coach Marty Reed said. "He has command of all his pitches. He’s smart and does all of the little things out there."

13 GABE GROSS, of
Dunedin Blue Jays
Gross started six games at quarterback for Auburn as a freshman before focusing on baseball as a sophomore. On the heels of an All-America season, Gross' production slid as a junior, but not enough to prevent the Blue Jays from making him the first outfielder drafted (15th overall) this June.

Toronto is intrigued with the football mentality that Gross brings to the diamond, plus he can flat-out rake and has drawn comparisons to Mike Greenwell. He quickly made adjustments to FSL pitchers, who didn't give in to him and often pitched him backwards.

Pevey said Gross has light-tower power, and he homered twice in his Double-A debut after a late-season promotion. He also has above-average arm strength, though he’s trying to improve his overall defensive play.

14 WILKEN RUAN, of
Jupiter Hammerheads (Expos)
In a midseason survey of managers, Ruan was named the FSL’s fastest baserunner, best defensive outfielder and best outfielder arm. He’s far from a polished offensive player, though many managers see potential in his bat.

Bradshaw compared him to a young Willie Wilson, though Ruan's strike-zone judgment has room for improvement. He needs to shorten up his swing–especially because he lacks power–and display more patience to take advantage of his blinding speed. His defense is another strength.

"He's been great. Our field is huge and he saves us in center field," Leiper said. "He runs under everything and his arm is strong and accurate."

15 CHASE UTLEY, 2b
Clearwater Phillies

When the Phillies drafted Utley last year out of UCLA, many expected him to be on the fast track given the struggles of incumbent second baseman Marlon Anderson. In Utley’s first full season of pro ball, he showed he has some things to work on before unseating Anderson, who has rebounded.

"He needs to see a lot more lefthanders," Butterfield said. "In order to an be everyday player and move up the ladder, he’s going to have to hit lefthanded pitching."

Utley batted just .203 against southpaws. He also needs to continue to improve his defense, though his footwork and ability to turn the double play improved.

He should hit. Utley yanked a 97-mph Juan Cruz fastball into the right-field seats at Safeco Field during the Futures Game, and Pevey said Utley could develop into a Ryne Sandberg-type hitter. He may be too pull-conscious at this point.

"He's the type of guy we saw not swing the bat well, but you could tell it was there," Tijerina said. "He has the potential to hit for average and power."

16 LUIS GARCIA, 1b
Sarasota Red Sox

Garica went 3-2, 3.40 in two years on the mound before an arm injury ended his pitching career. Now in his fourth season as a first baseman, he’s blossoming into a legitimate power threat.

He has made major strides in each year with the bat. This season, he launched a career-high 40 doubles and 21 home runs between Sarasota and Double-A Trenton.

"He has a loose swing," Butterfield said. "He's a lot like Richie Sexson, with that tall, angular body."

Garcia still is learning to play first base. He has a wiry, athletic body and may be able to move to the outfield

17 NICK REGILIO, rhp
Charlotte Rangers

Regilio spent all of 2000 in Charlotte and was hampered by shoulder soreness that limited him to 86 innings. He felt slighted by opening this season back in the league, and he took out his frustration on the FSL.

Regilio started the league all-star game for the Western Divison and twirled a perfect game in his final Class A start. He throws three pitches for strikes: a 90-93 mph fastball, slider and change.

18 GREG MONTALBANO, lhp
Sarasota Red Sox

Montalbano pitched nine hitless innings against Charlotte on the Fourth of July, but didn't figure in the decision as the scoreless tie was snapped in extra innings. He later earned a promotion to Double-A, an impressive accomplishment for a pitcher in his first full season.

Montalbano held FSL hitters to a .201 average with a 90-91 mph fastball, above-average curve and change. Managers were impressed with his poise as well as his stuff. Butterfield said Montalbano had the best fastball command in the league.

"He gets his breaking ball over the plate when behind in the count," Brevard County manager Dave Huppert said. "He works the inner half of the plate to righthanders and kept us off stride."

19 RYAN MADSON, rhp
Clearwater Phillies
Madson was bothered by a sore right shoulder in the first half and needed a month to recover. He didn't require surgery and came back strong with a 1.65 ERA after he returned.

Madson has a loose arm and a 91-93 mph fastball. His overhand curveball shows the makings of giving him a second plus pitch.

20 FREDDY SANCHEZ, ss
Sarasota Red Sox

Like Garcia and Montalbano, Sanchez earned a promotion to Trenton. Before leaving, he challenged for the FSL batting title and showed gap power. He’s a good fastball hitter with a short, quick stroke.

Sanchez displays above-average range and mobility at shortstop with soft hands and a quick release. His arm is just average and he may be better suited for second base, which is a greater need in Boston than shortstop. Scouts and managers credited Sanchez for his gritty play and natural baseball instincts.

"He's a plus defender but I was really attracted to the way he swung the bat," Butterfield said. "He's tough to K. He just wore us out."

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